By Melissa Butz
Rome’s Piazza Navona is a favorite of both tourists and city dwellers alike. The cobblestone streets are normally full of sightseers, artists and musicians, but before the fifteenth century, they had a completely different use.
Since the first century, the square was a center for trading and bartering, a circus and sports venue dedicated to the emperor Domitian that could hold 30,000 spectators. Yet, there was also a much darker side to the iconic piazza.
“During this time, it was also the place for persecution of the Christians,” explained tour guide John Noronha. “So, if you can imagine, so many martyrs shed their blood and consecrated this ground, right here. It’s right here where Saint Agnes would have also been one of the many saints who was martyred for the faith.”
In fact, her sacrifice is honored with a church dedicated to her, St. Agnes. It houses a relic of her skull. The stairs leading up to it are strategically placed to avoid water damage when Pope Innocent X’s sister-in-law would flood the square.
“Imagine, the end of seventeenth century technology managed to flood this entire piazza – about three and a half feet – in order to recreate naval battle scenes,” said John.
Today, Piazza Navona’s main attraction is the obelisk and the Fountain of the Four Rivers, commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1650.
“People could not believe this fountain could actually support the weight of this amazing obelisk, which is not from here,” said John. “It comes all the way from Egypt and goes back to around 1500 b.c. It’s called ‘a silent witness’ because it witnessed the Israelites before and during the exodus.”
Once in Rome, the obelisk bore witness to the martyrdom of Christians, the raising of the entire square by 70 feet at the end of the nineteenth century and the onslaught of millions of tourists that normally fill Piazza Navona today.
In this historic place, artists, magicians and musicians intermingle with tourists all the time, giving this square a friendly, yet traditional Italian feel. It’s the perfect place to take a “passeggiata” or stroll while being surrounded by Rome’s rich history and culture.